The Wonder of Living Art: Aquarium Design

The 40-year journey of premier aquatic artisan Jim Stime

Aquarium title

Jim Stime vividly remembers the first time he walked into Pasadena Tropical Fish in 1982. It was love at first sight. Just inside the front door was a simple aquarium housing a yellow tang and a blue tang. Catching a glimpse of the intense, brilliant, yellow-and-rich-plastic-blue colors, “I was immediately hooked into the magnificent beauty of saltwater aquariums,” Stime recalls.

Fast-forward 40 years and Jim’s passion is now a successful career, earning him a reputation as the area’s most educated and respected expert on saltwater fish aquariums and living coral reefs. He first started fueling his aquatic interest by working in tropical fish shops. Then, he worked for an aquarium products manufacturer. After returning to a local Thousand Oaks tropical fish shop, he spent his efforts providing aquarium services, eventually going into business himself. During his career, Stime hosted a national aquarium conference, built websites selling aquariums, designed and patented a tank specific to jellyfish, and produced a YouTube video series—all while continuing to set up and service aquariums in homes and businesses throughout the community.

“It’s been an interesting, educational, and comfortable career that all stemmed from my hobby, and I’m a lucky guy to be involved in it,” Stime shares. Now at the pinnacle of his career, he relishes the privilege of designing unique, stylish aquariums for his upscale clientele—accommodating every custom shape and dimension to enhance each home’s beauty.

“While some affluent homeowners invest in paintings and statues, my clients consider their aquariums to be a form of ‘living art,’ where I get to be the Vincent Van Gogh by designing, installing, and maintaining living and breathing home aquariums that they can enjoy for years to come,” Stime says.

The initial inquiry he encounters with potential clients is about the difference between a “fish only” and “living coral reef” system. Stime explains that a fish-only system is a collection of colorful fish with decorations, like a rock foundation, calcareous gravel, and sterile, bleach-cleaned coral skeletons.


The more exciting and far more stable alternative is a living coral reef system. Corals are living creatures consisting of a fleshy covered skeleton that, through the process of photosynthesis, deposit calcium to build up their skeletal framework and grow upwards towards the light. With the advent of LED lights, the corals fluoresce with vivid or pastel colors. Similar to plants, corals can start off as fragments of their larger organism, eventually growing into large corals.

The visual experience of a living coral reef tank sets it apart from a fish-only system as the entire aquarium is alive. Standing back to collectively view the inhabitants of a fish-only system is common, but with a living coral reef, “you get up close to the tank, observing the individual inhabitants and giving the feeling of being immersed in the entire aquatic system,” Stime shares with a broad smile.

As technology advances, so does the way Stime maintains his custom-designed aquariums, which now include computer systems to monitor and control all aspects of aquaria. “The keen insight and statistics from the computer ultimately provide the key to success—stability,” Stime explains. And it can all be accessed from his smartphone with minute-by-minute notifications to control temperature and water parameters or track equipment issues.

Materials have also changed the aquarium industry. A departure from the traditional, square-bodied glass tanks, most of Stime’s custom builds are now constructed of acrylic, offering a wide range of unique shapes, from cylindrical to bowed fronts and wide-radius bent or curved corners. Since acrylic is clearer and lighter than glass, 8- to 12-foot-long tanks are easily achievable, as well as dramatic 4-, 6-, and 8-foot-tall tanks.

As the owner of Aquarium Design, Stime is at the helm of all the day-to-day responsibilities. “It is and always has been just me. I’m the one who cleans the tank; I provide the fish, the coral, the food, and all the maintenance supplies. When there is an emergency, it is me who answers the phone. I’m a one-man army, your one-stop shop,” reveals Stime, “I ensure my clients’ only jobs are to feed the fish and enjoy the show.”

With four decades of experience in sourcing the best vendors and products to build and maintain his stunning designs, “L.A.’s Fish Guy” doesn’t mind the nicknames it’s earned him. He considers his work “living art,” making him the aquatic Vincent Van Gogh.

805.241.7140 | Aquarium— | YouTube @lafishguy